We’ve Been Saying This for Years! WSJ on Ugly Churches

Déjà vu. The February 24, 2017 issue of the Wall Street Journal ran the story, “Free Our Churches From the Ugly and Stupid” by Professor Anthony Esolen of Providence College. In this wonderful piece, Esolen laments “Stations of the Cross that can hardly be recognized as depictions of the Passion” and “crosses that look as if a modernist Jesus were flying with wings outspread like a theological pterodactyl.” He says there is a certain decorum at a baseball field, certain areas set aside. But “Catholic hierarchs, in a fit of beauty smashing, got the strange idea that human beings enjoy spaces without definition or purpose.”

Welcome to Our Crusade, Wall Street Journal!

We of the Bellarmine Forum/Wanderer Forum Foundation went over just this topic a few years ago. 2013 was designated a Year of Faith with special emphasis on the study of the Second Vatican Council. The Bellarmine Forum magazine dedicated its four issues to the Council and the Faith, because mention the Second Vatican Council to many Catholics and the wound the changes created so many years ago is still painful.

In the second magazine issue of that year, our authors discussed “The Public Face of Vatican II: Change.” The most visible “changes” the council allegedly made included changes in the physical domain of the local parishes. In “The Cult of the Ugly and Vatican II,” architect Erik Bootsma aptly dealt with ugly churches, a trend he said began well before the Council. In fact, he said, the Council only gave general directives and modernist architects and theorists “would lay claim to exclusive right to interpret what notions of ‘noble simplicity’ of art would mean and furthermore claim the exclusive imprimatur of the Council.”  This was due to the Council’s preference to rely on “experts” to advise what should be done. “The destruction of beautiful art, in accordance with modernist principles, but in the name of the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ quickly commenced.”

Ed. Note: This illustrated article and several of the commentaries on Vatican II by our authors will appear in our upcoming book The Second Vatican Council: The Reality and the Myth About the Nature of the Church.

In his WSJ article, Esolen also bemoans church music: “I have heard for decades effeminate ‘hymns’ with the structure and melody of off-Broadway show tunes. I have read hymn texts altered so as to obliterate references to God with the personal pronoun ‘He.’  This music would not be acceptable for a jingle to sell jelly doughnuts on television.”

A Few Examples of What We’ve Been Saying

True, but late again. In Winter of 2004, the Wanderer Forum Foundation’s Forum Focus (predecessor of the Bellarmine Forum magazine) devoted an issue to “The Sacred Art of the Church.”  The Mass and culture, Sacred Music, and church art were examined. Here is what this author wrote at that time:

The body of music dedicated to sacred worship is vast. The Church has preserved this heritage and encouraged its use throughout the centuries because faith is reinforced by word and melody. St. Bernard’s original “O Sacred Head Surrounded” put to Bach’s music left no doubt of man’s sinfulness and Christ’s sacrifice long before Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ hit the silver screen. The “Requiem” from the Vatican Graduale was no celebration of human life and earthly accomplishments but rather a plea for God’s mercy for the departed soul. No one could doubt this for even if the Latin words were not understood, the melody conveyed the gravity of the occasion. Vatican II never changed any of this. Permission to use vernacular did not mean sending the St. Gregory Hymn Book into the trash.

Faith inspires word and melody which in turn reinforce faith. But what if faith is tenuous, unsupported by catechesis and even discouraged in a do-your-own-thing society?

The end of the sixties brought protest marches, anger, class envy, all of which spilled into many areas of life including worship. The ancient “I will not serve” whispered in hidden corners came resounding over microphones on college campuses and pulpits. Out with the old – Mass rubrics, Latin, organ music, solemnity – and in with the new: hootenanny and polka Masses, French bread broken on the altar instead of the host, and Jesus our Brother instead of Savior (but no one sinned anymore so who needed to be saved?).

The last 30 years have brought us hymn books filled with unfamiliar tunes, some Catholic, some from Protestant and ethnic traditions, and even new words set to a swinging television theme song from the past. Guitars, bugles, harmonicas, bells (certainly not at the consecration of the Mass!) and drums, tambourines, maracas have joined the choir. There has been gender neutering, word changes – “Though the eye of sinful man” from “Holy, Holy, Holy” has turned into “Though the eye made blind by sin” – and verse changes. Bob Hurd composed two new verses for “O Sacred Head Surrounded.”  The new verse 3 goes like this (2004): “My sister rendered voiceless, demeaned and still in chains. My brother still exploited, images of your pain.”  And some recent composers, well aware of the word-melody-faith connection have embarked on revising Catholic belief into something other than the faith of our fathers.

Bread, bread, bread! How long can those words be repeated and sung before all we believe is on the altar is a simple piece of bread? Christ is the bread of life and wine of peace and the Mass is a feast, the lyrics go. Even children in religious educations programs are only taught about the blessed bread that is Jesus and the holy meal. Congregations plod through insipid themes of community building and sixties social justice as regular Sunday songs decry the haughty and their riches, and tell us “we survive on others in our human greed.”  And, “in our common quest for justice may we hallow life’s brief span.”  We are being gathered in – but for what? To receive our Lord and God in the Holy Eucharist, which is supposed to be the source and summit of all we do? Or to attend a community get-together which makes Christ present because we are “here in this place”?

Brooks Traces the shift of art from Glory of God to Glory of Man

In his article in the Forum Focus, “Is Sacred Art Still Necessary?” Matthew Brooks, an artist and sculptor, outlined art in history and its shift from the glory of God to the glory of man. He wrote:

“Hail Man! Modern Art serves the new religion well.  It has thrown off the shackles created by the form God gave to creation with the arrogant purpose of exploring a new form with man as the new creator. But this is most definitely religious art. The axiom that art is most often found in the service of the prominent religion of the day holds true. The bone thrown to Catholic dissent as it became obvious that there were few artists left willing to serve the Church is the religious art and statue factories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Grotesque parodies of our heritage, they turned out badly crafted sentimental and maudlin imitations by the thousands. They appealed to the sighing 16-year-old, the effeminate, the emotionally starved mind which devours romance novels for the easy emotion, the quick tear: The seed that falls on hard ground and begins to grow but fails to take root. This is not the material of strong vocations to the priesthood and religious life! Quite the contrary, it was one of the causes of the notion that it was “unmanly” to go to church – as if the Church were an affront to machismo. The Norman Rockwell painting of the man in his bathrobe reading the paper as his harrumphing wife and children parade behind pressed, dressed and heading for church says it all.”

Brooks, M. Is Sacred Art Still Necessary?

Obviously, as Professor Esolen describes, the battle is still enjoined. As Brooks, author of A Glimpse Beyond the Veil, said, “The cure can be found by understanding the disease. Our concept of God as an equal must be challenged by art and architecture that restates God as pure awe and humbling presence.

Not an overnight task, but one we are happy the good professor publicized.

This article, We’ve Been Saying This for Years! WSJ on Ugly Churches is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

Cindy Paslawski

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